"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: December 2008

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More Good News

I received an e-mail from Todd Drew’s wife yesterday afternoon. She said that Todd made it through surgery just fine. Talk about a Christmas present. For those who might have missed it, Todd, part of the Banter writing team, has a rare kind of stomach cancer. He’s going to be laid up in the hospital over the holidays but he appears to be doing well. I’m a head on over there later today and drop off a care package of books and articles (and today’s papers!) for when he’s ready to read again.

I know I can speak for Cliff, but I’ll be bold and speak for the entire Bronx Banter crew, in sending love and the best holiday cheer to Todd and his wife and their entire family. This is great news. I will keep you posted. Any thoughts you have, leave ‘em in the comments section below and I’ll make sure to print them out and give them to Todd.

How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love US Steel

It is cold and now dark in New York but there is plenty of heat being generated by the afternoon news that Mark Teixeira has agreed to an eight-year deal with the Yankees.  My friend Rich Lederer, an Angels fan, called me from the golf course in California.  He was not happy.  He practically yelled on the phone he was so irritated.

How can you root for a team that has such an uneven financial advantage?  How is that fun?  Where’s the competition in that? 

“I hope they lose every single game,” Pat Jordan said to me when I called with the news a few hours later.  Both men, incidentally, are Republican, but they are also both rebellious, outsiders, self-made men.  They aren’t the kind that get off rooting for US Steel.

Yet here I am, a New York Liberal, and yet US Steel, that’s my team.  I used to have guilt about it, for years it worried me.  Then I grew up.  What’s the use feeling guilty?  You have accept what is.  Professional baseball isn’t a game.  The Yankees are out to win, every year, forever.  Isn’t that why Ban Johnson created the Highlanders in the first place?  They will spend whatever it they have to spend.  They pay a big luxury tax in return.  They might offend everything you stand for.  So be it.  I get it.

I like being a Yankee fan.  If Yankee fans are cursed by anthing, it is the teams’ ruthless ambition and unyielding arrogance.  The curse for a rational-minded Yankee fan is that you are rooting for the front-runner, the bullies. And if you are overly neurotic you will question what that says about your moral fiber.  So, we listen to other fans ridicule our team as something less-than-wholesome, something corrupt. 

As far as curses go, it’s not so bad.   After all, being a Yankee fan also means knowing, feeling in your bones, that you’ll see your team win again, and probably some time soon.  Which is not to say that it will happen, but Yankee fans feel as if it should, and, inevitably, that it will happen.  Being a Yankee fan also means wishing for, and often getting, big, fat, expensive Christmas presents like a CC or a Teixeira.  Sometimes, the toy doesn’t make it out the box before it breaks–Don Gullet, Jose Contreras, Carl Pavano.    

But you can’t predict the future and for the moment, all you can say is that you feel pretty warm in a cold, hard world.

Cash Money

All I want for Christmas is…

gg

EVERYTHING.

According to Buster Olney at ESPN, Mark Teixeira is going to be a Yankee.

What’s Wang With This Picture?

Chien-Ming Wang, 2008 Topps

The Yankees have signed Chien-Ming Wang to a $5 million contract for the 2009, thereby avoiding arbitration with the first of their four arb-eligible players (Xavier Nady, Melky Cabrera, and Brian Bruney are the other three). The contract in and of itself is insignificant. Wang made $4 million last year, but missed the second half of the season with a lisfranc fracture in his foot and thus only got a $1 million raise. No big deal. I do, however, find the Yankees’ treatment of Wang’s arbitration years interesting.

Last year, Wang and Robinson Cano both became eligible for arbitration for the first time. With Cano asking for $4.55 million in 2008, the Yankees decided to buy out his arbitration years entirely with a four-year, $30 million contract. Wang, meanwhile, asked for $4.6 million and the Yankees took him to arbitration to save $600,000 and beat him.

To me, that says alot about the Yankees’ relative enthusiasm for these two players. That’s not to say that they don’t value Wang on a year-to-year basis, but Wang is 2 1/2 years older than Cano and, while its easy to forget even following his foot injury this past season, he has a less than rosy injury history.

Way back in 2001, labrum surgery cost Wang all of his second professional season, forcing him to restart at short-season Staten Island at age 22 in 2002. In his rookie season of 2005, he was shut down in mid-July with another labrum scare that, fortunately, turned out to be solved by his simply spending two months on the DL. In 2007, he started the season on the DL with a hamstring strain suffered in spring training, and last year he broke his foot running the bases in Houston, ending his season after just 15 starts. Thus, Wang has avoided the DL in just one of his four major league seasons.

Beyond those injuries, Wang is also sometimes looked upon with suspicion because of his poor strikeout rates. He has been able to succeed despite striking out just 4.02 men per nine inning on his career (against a league average of 6.48) because of his extreme ground-ball rate, but there’s a sense that that balance will not hold indefinitely. Fortunately, Wang managed to increase his strikeout rate in both 2007 and 2008, topping out at 5.12 K/9 last year thanks to the coaching of Dave Eiland, who had him working in more sliders when he needed a K. Unfortunately, Wang’s walk rates have risen as well, so that his K/BB ratio has held relatively steady near his career sub-par 1.58 mark (league average is 2.01).

On top of concerns about his fragility and effectiveness, there’s age. Wang was 25 as a rookie and will be 29 this season. That’s certainly not old, but he’s several months older than both CC Sabathia and  Josh Beckett. Wang’s arbitration years will take him to age 30, where as Cano’s contract is only guaranteed through his age-28 season. It seems to me that this is the primary reason why the Yankees are taking Wang year-by-year, but went ahead and bought out Cano’s arbitration years in bulk.

There’s another thing that strikes me about Wang’s new one-year deal. It seems unlikely that Wang’s value is going to be lower next year than it is now. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the Yankees to try to negotiate a two-year deal and thereby preemptively suppress Wang’s 2010 salary based on his injury-shortened 2008 season? Perhaps having failed to get a multi-year deal out of the Yankees last year, Wang and his agents wouldn’t agree to such a thing. Still, I think the fact that the Yankees continue to go year-by-year with Wang supports a notion I had when the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett for five years:

The Yankees don’t intend to re-sign Chien-Ming Wang after he becomes a free agent.

Think about it. Sabathia is signed for at least three years and possibly seven. Burnett is signed for five years. Joba Chamberlain is well on his way to establishing himself in the rotation. That’s three spots in the 2011 rotation that are already spoken for. Wang will become a free agent following the 2010 season. If the Yankees can, over the next two years, develop just two more young arms (with Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, and Zach McAllister being the top candidates), there’s no room for Wang in 2011, and no need to pay a free-agent salary to a player whose arbitration years the Yankees wouldn’t even buy out. Even if the Yankees only develop one more starter by 2011, that leaves just one empty spot in the 2011 rotation, and there’s a good chance that they will be able to find a better way to fill that last spot than to give a big-money, long-term deal to a 31-year-old Chien-Ming Wang.

Of course, when it comes to pitching anything can happen. It could be that none of the pitchers above is healthy or productive enough to claim a rotation spot in 2011. Projecting pitching even just three years into the future is a dangerous game, but the way everything looks right now, I think we’re only going to see Wang in pinstripes for two more years. Enjoy him while you can.

News of the Day – 12/23/08

Powered by a $275,000 to $400,000 watch, here’s the news:

  • ESPN.com’s Buster Olney recaps the offers made to Mark Teixeira to this point, and foresees that Tex will wind up with the BoSox at the end of all the circus acts:

Mark Teixeira told Red Sox owner John Henry the other day that he has offers higher than what the Red Sox offered, but as Boston gauges the market, it’s clear that club executives now must have serious doubts about that.

Does Teixeira really have lots of offers for more than what the Red Sox are offering? Clearly, Boston doesn’t think so. Only Boras knows for sure.

It seems that the game has played itself out, the last cards have been dealt, and now Teixeira is in position to make his decision. The read on the table here, still, is that he will sign with the Red Sox.

  • The Record’s Bob Klapisch thinks a Girardi/Manny combo won’t work:

Just how much of the Yankees’ ineptitude was the fault of the over-zealous manager, who transferred his anxiety onto his players? Girardi’s postgame death stare was legend in the clubhouse; at times he wouldn’t even speak to his players, much less look at them, as he marched back to his office after a loss.

So before they start negotiating in earnest with Scott Boras, Manny’s agent, the Yankees need to consider how Ramirez would respond to Girardi’s state trooper mentality. Here’s an early theory: He won’t.

Put it this way: How likely is it that Manny would shed his dreadlocks for Girardi, as per club policy? Ramirez did trim his hair for Torre, but only by an insignificant amount. Torre, knowing that he needed a happy and productive Manny during a three-month rental, chose not to push the issue.

  • MLB.com reports that the Yanks avoided arbitration with Chien-Ming Wang by signing him to a one-year deal worth $5 million.

[My take: Do only position players get offered deals to buy out arbitration and/or free agency years?  Given Wang's excellent track record, his youth, and the fact that none of his injuries have been arm-related, would there be any incentive for the Yanks to wrap him up for a few years, at least in terms of vesting options based on innings pitched?  The Tribe are well-known for buying out a year or two of free agency of young position players, saving a few bucks now and down the road.  But the Yanks have only done that sort of thing with one player of recent vintage (Cano), and so far, its not a bargain for the Bombers.  Nonetheless, if I'm Wang, I'm looking at A.J. Burnett's track record and saying "we get outs in different ways, but I'm just as effective in terms of winning games.  How about a multi-year deal for me?"]

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Card Corner–Dock Ellis

dockellis

The world of baseball lost one of its most colorfully eccentric characters on Friday, when former Yankee Dock Ellis died from liver failure. A mere 63 years of age, Ellis managed to pack more “living” (both good and bad) into those years than most of us could have done in a hundred and 63 years.

The following are excerpts from my original manuscript on the 1971 Pirates, a team that featured Ellis as one of its most central figures. We’ll miss you, Dock.

The veteran right-hander certainly possessed the repertoire of a winning pitcher: a fastball that ran away from right-handed hitters, a sinking fastball, an effective but sparingly used breaking ball and a tenacious mindset. In one of his 1970 regular season starts, Ellis had demonstrated all of his talents at their peaks. On June 12, he had forged a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres, overcoming eight walks, a hit batsman, and several bases-loaded situations. His lone post-season start also showcased his occasional brilliance. In a playoff game against the Reds, Ellis concluded his season with nine innings of shutout pitching, before falling to fatigue and giving up three runs in the 10th to lose the game—and the series.

While Ellis possessed many talents, his resume also carried several red flags. The owner of a fragile right arm, Ellis [in 1970] had missed six weeks in August and September with elbow soreness, which cast some doubt on his health heading into the new season. Ellis had also proven to be a source of controversy. He had criticized the Pirate coaching staff for a failure to detect an unnatural change in his pitching motion and had feuded off and on with Pittsburgh-area writers. More significantly, Ellis possessed a dark side that had not been fully revealed to the public; the 26-year-old pitcher was using a variety of drugs. As he would disclose many years later, he had pitched his no-hitter against the Padres under the severe influence of LSD. Ellis had also taken prescription drugs Benzedrine and Dexamyl within two hours of his masterpiece at San Diego Stadium.

***

Just a few weeks earlier, Ellis had made headlines by predicting that he would not be selected to start the All-Star Game. Ellis had reasoned that with American League manager Earl Weaver likely to select the sizzling Vida Blue as his starter, baseball’s powers-that-be would want at least one white pitcher starting the midsummer classic in Detroit. “They wouldn’t pitch two brothers against each other,” Ellis told a reporter from the New York Times. Ellis also offered a secondary reason for a possible snub. “Sparky Anderson [the National League manager] doesn’t like me.”

Much to the pitcher’s surprise, Anderson announced that Ellis would start and would indeed face Blue in Detroit. Anderson denied that Ellis’ comments had, in any way, swayed his decision. “His 14-3 record and the fact that he hasn’t pitched since last Tuesday is what forced me to choose him,” Sparky told the New York Times, while defending Ellis’ outburst against him. “I think everybody has a right to say what he wants.”

In response to his outburst, Ellis received a number of angry letters from fans, who criticized him for being so presumptuous about Anderson. Ellis also received at least one positive letter—which came from the major leagues’ first African-American player of the 20th century. “I don’t mind those [negative] letters,” Ellis told The Sporting News, “but there was one letter I was particularly pleased with. Jackie Robinson wrote me a letter of encouragement. I met him last April in New York, and then I received this letter from him.”

On Tuesday, July 13, just hours before the start of the All-Star Game, Ellis offered no apologies for his recent remarks doubting the possibility of African-American pitchers starting the national pastime’s showcase game. “When it comes to black players, baseball is backwards, everyone knows it,” Ellis told a reporter from the New York Times. “I’m sort of surprised that I am starting, but I don’t feel my statements had anything to do with it.” Ellis also seized the opportunity to complain about the lack of endorsements for black athletes, compared to the commercial opportunities given to white players. A reporter asked Ellis if he had received any endorsement offers in light of his brilliant pitching in the first half of the season. “Aw, man, c’mon,” Ellis said incredulously. “Come to me for endorsements?”

Later in the season, Ellis would complain that black players received less attention from the media and less promotion from the front office than white athletes of similar ability. Ellis brought up several examples from the Pirates’ own roster. “Bob Moose and I are the tightest,” Ellis told Phil Musick of Sport magazine, “but when he came up, he was a phenom. Richie Hebner, he was Mr. Pie Traynor. Why don’t they publicize black players like that?”

Throughout his life, Ellis had bristled at racist treatment. During his first spring training in 1964, Ellis said he had argued or fought with seven different teammates who had used ethnic slurs in conversing with him. Seven years later, such instances of face-to-face racism still bothered Ellis, but he had learned to use restraint. During the 1971 season, Ellis and a black friend visited a high school that had been affected by racial divisions. On the way to the school, a police officer called out to the two men, referring to them as “boys.” “That’s where I’ve changed,” Ellis told Sport Magazine. “Three years ago, I would’ve jumped on the cop’s chest. But all I did was to correct him.”

Ellis, who would eventually be featured on the cover of the August 21st issue of The Sporting News, had emerged as one of the National League’s most dominant pitchers—and one of its most intriguing personalities. While some black players shied away from public discourse of their own Afrocentric world views, Ellis reveled in such discussions. In an article in Sports Illustrated, Ellis explained the significance of his daughter’s Swahili name, Shangaleza Talwanga. Ellis, one of three black pitchers on the Pirates at the time, explained that it meant “everything black is beautiful.” In the Pirates’ clubhouse, Ellis enjoyed listening to loud music that he labeled “funky.” On the field, when preparing to take his at-bats during games he pitched, Ellis donned a fuzzy batting helmet, which he referred to as “velvetized.”

At times, though, Ellis’ behavior bordered on the bizarre. Two years later, in perhaps his most celebrated incident, Ellis would walk out onto the field before a game against the Cubs wearing a head full of hair curlers. “I think the big thing with him when he come out on Wrigley Field with the hair curlers,” recalls Richie Hebner, “is that when he did that, other than surprising a lot of people at Wrigley Field, it surprised a lot of guys on the Pirate team. When I saw it, I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” Commissioner Bowie Kuhn reportedly conveyed his unhappiness over the hair curler episode to Bill Virdon, who by now had succeeded Danny Murtaugh as the Pirates’ manager. Virdon, relaying the commissioner’s message, told Ellis to cease his practice of wearing the curlers on the field. “Look, Dock,” Virdon said, “I don’t care what you wear, but the front office doesn’t like it, the umpires don’t like it, and if you’re not careful, you’re going to get fined.”

Bob Robertson recalls his own involvement in the hair curler episode. “[The manager] comes to me and says, ‘Go out and ask Dock why he’s got those curlers in his hair?’ So I did. And I think, if I can remember correctly, Dock said, ‘That’s me. Those are my curls.’ And that was about it. So I went back and told [Virdon] and that was the end of that stuff.” Much to Virdon’s delight, Ellis would not wear the hair curlers on the field again.

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SHADOW GAMES: Baseball and Me

I went to a baseball game after my father’s funeral. I also went to one after finding out about my mother’s brain cancer.

It was selfish and heartless. I felt guilty before and embarrassed after, but for nine innings I felt only the game. That’s the way it’s always been between baseball and me.

It was my friend when I didn’t have any others. And it has always been there to talk or listen or simply to watch.

Baseball helps me forget and it makes me remember. That’s why it was exactly what I needed on the worst days of my life.

But there were no games when a doctor told me that I had cancer. The neighborhood was out of baseball on that cold November day. No one was playing at Franz Sigel Park or John Mullaly Park. And there wasn’t even a game of catch in Joyce Kilmer Park. The last game at the old Yankee Stadium was long gone and Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium was long off.

So I went home and wished for one of those summer days when I was a kid and my mother would send me to the ballpark with a paper sack stuffed with her famous tuna-fish sandwiches. That was back when you could slip through a delivery gate with the beer kegs and watch batting practice. And it was always okay to come home late with a beat-up scorecard and popcorn stuck between your teeth.

The doctor told me that tomorrow’s surgery and chemotherapy treatment might keep me in the hospital for 10 days.

“At least it’s December,” I said. “There aren’t any ballgames to miss.”

And I will be ready to slip through a delivery gate with the beer kegs when the new Yankee Stadium opens. I’ll watch batting practice with one of my mother’s famous tuna-fish sandwiches and come home late with a beat-up scorecard and popcorn stuck between my teeth.

Cancer can’t change the way it will always be between baseball and me.

News of the Day – 12/22/08

Let’s get right to it:

  • The Post’s George King details Jays’ GM J.P. Ricciardi concerns over the marriage of Burnett and the Yanks:

“The big question is how he handles New York,” the Blue Jays’ GM said of the Little Rock native. “No one knows for sure. That’s the big test; how he handles that.”

“The first two years here (2006-07), he was a little nicked up,” Ricciardi said. “I think he was more scared than hurt. When he was healthy and right he was fine.”

“I saw a big change this past season compared to the first year,” Ricciardi said. “The first year he was trying to justify the contract (five years for $55 million). Last year it was like, ‘I have nothing to lose; it was either (Toronto) or opt out.’ He let it go.”

  • BP.com’s John Perrotto has some concerns for Sabathia in a Yankee uni:

While he is one of the best pitchers in the game, there certainly are reasons to think that he may not be cut out to pitch in New York. Sabathia has usually been awful during the postseason on baseball’s biggest stage, posting a 7.92 ERA in five starts and 25 innings. That’s not a significant sample size, but Sabathia has admitted to putting too much pressure on himself in October. His lone quality start came as a 21-year-old rookie with the Indians in the 2001 American League Division Series, when he allowed two runs in six innings to beat the 116-win Mariners. Sabathia had quality starts in 15 of his 17 outings for the Brewers last season after being acquired from the Indians in a July trade, but gave up five runs in 3 2/3 innings in losing to the Phillies in Game Two of the NLDS.

(Indians manager Eric) Wedge insists that Sabathia will be fine pitching in New York. “I think he’s going to be more than fine,” Wedge said. “Nobody puts more pressure on CC than CC. I know some people scoff at that because New York is different, but because of everything CC has been through, and because of the adjustments he’s made—mentally, physically, fundamentally, and just the leadership ability he has, the strength he has as a human being, just what he takes care of both on and off the field—he’s going to be fine. He has perspective. He has a tremendous belief system in himself and the process. …”

  • Kevin Kernan of the Post insists that the Yanks must go after Teixeira:

The Yankees have their opening. Face it, they are not going to commit nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to two pitchers and not try to upgrade their offense. Remember, this is a team that had trouble scoring runs last year….

Adding Teixeira would help in so many ways. His on-base percentage was .410. Alex Rodriguez led the Yankees with a .392 mark. Teixeira hit 33 home runs. His presence in the lineup would make A-Rod that much more valuable. This is no different than having David Ortiz and Ramirez. Ortiz has not been the same without Manny.

[My take: While I agree that Tex would do wonders for the Yanks lineup, I wouldn't say "Ortiz has not been the same without Manny".  First of all, its a small sample size alert.  Youkilis and Pedroia replaced Manny in the clean-up spot, and they obviously didn't stink up the joint.  Jason Bay hit .293/.370/.527 with 9 HR and 37 RBIs after coming over to Boston.  After Manny was traded, Ortiz hit .262/.381/.519 with 9 HRs and 42 RBIs in 49 games, despite a cranky wrist.]

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SHADOW GAMES: Nobody Ever Asks Me, But…

Blogs are poor excuses for street corners.

I’m always being reminded of that in my neighborhood.

“Baseball blogging doesn’t take any courage,” my friend Javier was telling the guys gathered outside the bodega near the corner of Gerard Avenue and East 157th Street. “Ballplayers have the courage to put it on the line every day in front of a million people. If you don’t have the guts to toss your opinions around on the street and risk getting a fist in the face then you shouldn’t write them on a blog.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“I wasn’t asking some sissy blogger,” Javier snapped.

Nobody ever asks me, but…

I love grown men who spit sunflower seeds, chew bubblegum and answer to: Jete, Mo, A-Rod, Josey, Domo, Mattie, Melk, CC, A.J., Swish, Brew, X-Man and The Wanger.

If Joba Chamberlain was a banker, they would call him Justin Chamberlain instead of Joba the Hutt.

I know most people doubt Orlando Hernandez these days. He is old and hasn’t been healthy enough to pitch in a long time. But I still believe El Duque can do anything.

The best part of the World Baseball Classic is getting to see the Cubans play.

It seems like there are more Americans backing out of the World Baseball Classic every day. The players’ concerns need to be addressed if this tournament is ever going to be what it should be.

Jason Whitlock of The Kansas City Star is one of the best sports columnists in the country. I just wish he covered more baseball.

Joe Posnanski covers a lot of baseball for The Kansas City Star. He also does fine work for Sports Illustrated and on his blog.

The Kansas City Star deserves the best writers since that’s where Ernest Hemingway got his start.

There used to be a great sportswriter in New York named Mike Lupica. Whatever happened to that guy?

Josh Hamilton made year-end lists in GQ and Esquire. He also has a new book out called “Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back.” He had a fabulous season and deserves everything that comes his way.

Milton Bradley had a pretty good season, too.

According to some baseball writers, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro may be locked out of the Hall of Fame just like Mark McGwire.

Will there be any reason to still call it the Hall of Fame if all that talent joins Pete Rose on the outside looking in?

I say the Yankees are the team to beat.

The Crown Diner on East 161st Street has the best chocolate donuts in the world.

Two of my favorite places to watch baseball are Falcon Park in Auburn and Dunn Field in Elmira. And I will always love the long-gone MacArthur Stadium in Syracuse and the soon-to-be-gone Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. But the best place to see a ballgame is wherever you’re watching one that day.

I think Mark Teixeira is a great talent, but Manny Ramirez has ripped my heart out so many times that I wouldn’t mind having him on my side for a change. Part of it is that he grew up just across the Harlem River in Washington Heights and the rest of it is the big bat he swings. I’ll carry any baggage as long as he carries that lumber.

Tony Pena will bring a lot more to this team as the bench coach. And I’m not just saying that because I like the Tony Pena codfish-salad special at El Nuevo Caridad in Washington Heights.

My best friend Michael Allen recently gave me a copy of “Nobody Asked Me, But… The World of Jimmy Cannon.” I’ve never owned the book, but have checked it out of the library about a million times. That gift will save me a pile of money in late fees.

Blogs will always be poor excuses for street corners, but I told Javier that it would be warmer in front of my computer than on the corner of Gerard Avenue and East 157th Street.

“You online guys are real sissies,” Javier said. “But since no one punched your lights out I guess it’s okay to blog it.”

When it Snows…

Snow and then rain has covered New York since Friday morning and I’ve been home sick since Thursday. Yesterday, Em and I went off to get our new kitten, Mo Green. Into the country snow. The senior cat in our crib, the Divine Mrs. Tashi, is none too thrilled, as you can imagine. And Mo is just as cute as he is wild.

Still not feeling too well, I slept on the couch, next to a little box we’d set up for Mo, last night. From 3-5 am he was a wild man. Ah, the joys of parenthood. I’ll have a picture of the little bugger up in the coming days.

I did catch the CC, AJ press conference the other day and came away amped about next season for the first time. I think CC has an easy personality, he’s got some charm. What’s not to like? Then, the fan in me, tore loose as I realized that the Yankees’ best starting pitcher is a six-foot-seven brother. I mean, his size alone is unique, but how many good black starting pitchers have the Yankees ever had? Al Downing, Rudy May, Doc Gooden. It’s not that many. Which isn’t to say that race is a reason to like or dislike a guy. I’m just noting the facts. I wonder how many city kids that normally don’t care about baseball will be wearing 52 jerseys next year.

CC is a new-age pitching version of Darryl Dawkins “Chocolate Thunder.”

I thought it was fascinating to hear Brian Cashman disclose that last winter the Yankees were either going to deal Hughes, et al to the Twins for Johan Santana, or they were going to wait and hope to nab Sabathia this winter in the free-agent market. They rolled the dice, got the situation they wanted, and then signed their man. That is satisfying.

I was almost even more impressed by Burnett. Now, he’s a guy that I’ve loved rooting against for years. The charge against him–he’s all talent, no polish, a million dollar arm with a ten cent head–was something I could never see past, even when he shut the Yankees down time and time again. But in the press conference, and then later to reporters, Burnett attributed much of his injury history to arrogance. He loved his “stuff” so much, he said, that he’d try and throw every pitch 98 miles an hour. If you got it, flaunt it, was his motto. He didn’t know how to prepare, physcially or mentally, for a long season. But he remembers making the playoffs in ’03 and not being able to pitch.

Burnett gave Roy Halladay a lot of credit with turning him into a pitcher not just a chucker. He sounded like a guy who has finally figured it out for himself. Now whether or not he’ll continue to harness his gift (and if he does, he has the best pure stuff of anyone on the staff), or will he be hurt all the time and continue to be uneven? Time will only tell. But for me, it’s going to be easy to pull for him, at least at the outset, than I had imagined.

Burnett was almost deferential to Joe Girardi, the Yankee manager, who told reporters that CC and AJ were his Chirstmas presents this year. “No, I’m sure I’ll get a few gifts,” he added so as not to offend his wife. He went on to say that he is aware that the Yankees’ playoff run came to an end on his watch and he was eager to start a new streak. You could see how geeked he was with the new talent he’s got to work with and who can blame him?

When it’s all said and done, provided everyone is healthy, the Yankees 2009 starting pitching staff is going to look like a red, hot, shiny muscle car. Will it run like a GTO or an Edsel, that’s the question.

The Good Doctor

To a good pitcher, a great character, a true survivor, and a strong, caring man.

Rest in Peace, Doc Ellis.

ellis

I’ve run this before, but here is my favorite Doc Ellis story. From Doc Ellis in the Country of Baseball by Donald Hall.

In spring training 1974, Dock Ellis, felt that his Pirates had begun to loss some aggressiveness.

“You are scared of Cincinnati. That’s what I told my teammates. Every time we play Cincinnati, the hitters are on their ass.”

In 1970, ’71, and ’72, he says, the rest of the league was afraid of the Pirates. “They say, ‘Here come the big bad Pirates. They’re going to kick our ass!’ Like they give up. That’s what our team was starting to do. Cincinatti will bullshit with us and kick our ass and laugh at us. They’re the only team that talk about us like a dog. Whenever we play that team, everybody socializes with them.” In the past the roles had been revered. “When they ran over to us, we knew they were afraid of us. When I saw our team doing it, right then I say, ‘We gunna get down. We gonna do the do. I’m going to hit these motherfuckers.’”

Sure enough, on May 1st, the Reds came to Pittsburgh and Dock Ellis was pitching.

He told catcher Manny Sanguillen in the pre-game meeting, “Don’t even give me no signal. Just try and catch the ball. If you can’t catch it, forget it.”

Taking his usual warm-up pitches, Dock noticed Pete Rose standing at one side of the batter’s box, leaning on his bat, studying his delivery. On his next-to-last warm-up, Dock let fly at Rose and almost hit him.

A distant early warning.

In fact, he had considered not hitting Pete Rose at all. He and Rose are friends, but of course friendship, as the commissioner of baseball would insist, must never prevent even-handed treatment. No, Dock had considered not hitting Pete Rose because Rose would take it so well. “He’s going to charge first base, and make it look like nothing.” Having weighed the whole matter, Dock decided to hit him anyway.

“The first pitch to Pete Rose was directly toward his head,” as Dock expresses it, “not actually to hit him, ” but as “the message, to let him know that he was going to get hit. More or less to press his lips. I knew if I could get close to the head that I could get them in the body. Because they’re looking to protect their head, they’ll give me the body.” The next pitch was behind him. “the next one, I hit him in the side.”

Pete Rose’s response was even more devastating than Dock had anticipated. He smiled. Then he picked the ball up, where it had falled beside him, and gently, underhanded, tossed it back to Dock. Then he lit for first as if trying out fro the Olympics.

As Dock says, with huge approval, “You have to be good, to be a hot dog.”

As Rose bent down to pick up the ball, he had exchanged a word with Joe Morgan who was batting next. Morgan taunted Rose, “He doesn’t like you anyway. You’re a white guy.”

Dock hit Morgan in the kidneys with his first pitch.

By this time, both benches were agog. It was Mayday on May Day. The Pirates realized that Dock was doing what he said he would do. The Reds were watching him do it. “I looked over on the bench, they were all with their eyes wide and their mouths wide open, like, ‘I don’t believe it!’

“The next batter was [Dan] Driessen. I threw a ball to him. High and inside. The next one, I hit him in the back.”

Bases loaded, no outs. Tony Perez, Cincinnati first baseman, came to bat. He did not dig in. “There was no way I could hit him. He was running. The first one I threw behind him, over his head, up against the screen, but it came back off the glass, and they didn’t advance. I threw behind him because he was backing up, but then he stepped in front of the ball. The next three pitches, he was running. I walked him.” A run came in. “The next hitter was Johnny Bench. I tried to deck him twice. I threw at his jaw, and he moved. I threw at the back of his head, and he moved.”

With two balls and no strikes on Johnny Bench—eleven pitches gone: three hit batsmen, one walk, one run, and now two balls—[manager, Danny] Murtaugh approached the mound. “He came out as if to say, ‘What’s wrong? Can’t find the plate?’” Dock was suspicious that his manager really knew what he was doing. “No,” said Dock, “I must have Blass-itis.” (It was genuine wildness not throwing at batters—that had destroyed Steve Blass the year before.)

“He looked at me hard,” Dock remembers. “He said, ‘I’m going to bring another guy in.’ So I just walked off the mound.”

My favorite Doc moment as a Yankee came shortly before he was traded in 1977. He left the clubhouse when George Steinbrenner came down to address the troops one day. “I’m not going to listen to that High School Charley shit.”

Nope, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

SHADOW GAMES: The Other Side

I found myself waiting for the 2 train at Chambers Street last night. My Yankees cap was pulled low and I was reading a newspaper filled with everything about CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

The pictures of them smiling in their new uniforms made me think about baseball in the summertime. I saw fastballs and sliders and curveballs and changeups coming from the left and the right.

A train came, but I ignored it and kept reading. Then another train came and another and another. I let them all pass and dug deeper into the newspaper.

“Why don’t you go home and read where it’s warm?” I finally asked myself.

“Because I’ve got no place go,” said the voice next to me.

Robbie Sanchez used to have a job like mine and an apartment like mine and a life like mine. He had a dozen Derek Jeter T-shirts and shared a season-ticket package with some friends. Depression used to set in when the Yankees lost, but he always slept it off in a warm bed.

These days he stays warm by moving.

“I’ll hang around here until someone throws me out,” Sanchez said. “Then I’ll head to Penn Station because there’s a guy at one of the food stands who gives out coffee on cold nights.

“I’m just between lives right now,” he continued. “The key is to hold on until you make it to the other side.”

The Yankees strengthen his grip.

“Baseball lifts my spirits,” Sanchez said. “Things don’t seem as bad when you’ve got something to look forward to. The Yankees didn’t make the playoffs last year so they’re doing something about it. CC and A.J. will get the job done and I’ve got to do the same.”

“Let’s go to Penn Station and get some coffee,” I said.

“Sure,” Sanchez said. “Are you done with that newspaper?”

News of the Day – 12/20/08

Powered by Time magazine’s Best Websites of 2008 (cause you know … we don’t spend enough time surfing the web …), here’s the news:

  • MLB.com reports that A.J. Burnett credits Roy Halladay for helping him develop a more efficient training/throwing program:

… one that permits him to conserve energy over the long haul by cutting down on the amount of mandatory work between starts.

“Roy pounded it in my head that I don’t have to throw 98 [mph] every day, that I don’t have to go full tilt to win ballgames and be successful,” Burnett said.

“I always just showed off what I had when I felt good, and it got me in trouble. Now I know when to throw and not to throw. Some days I might not touch a ball; it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. You just don’t need to do it all the time.”…

Burnett said that he has learned how to budget his body so it is ready to go at all times, instead of displaying the youthful exhibitionism of ripping off throws just because his arm felt good.

“We’re hopeful that that’s the guy who has emerged and grown, and learned to harness his ability,” Cashman said. “He’s a bona fide front-line starter when he’s healthy. I know there’s risk attached to it, based on the past history. We’re hopeful that luck will be on our side.”

(My take: $82.5 million of hope and luck.  Whatever happened to investing in “sure things”?  Then again … the “sure thing” aisle was pretty barren at the “Free Agent Supermarket” this year.  Derek Lowe? Steady … dependable … but he’s priced himself a bit too high perhaps (rumored to be asking $66M over four years) … and how many groundballs could we stand to see dribbling past Cano and Jeter.  Randy Wolf? Talk about barely above league average! A career WHIP of 1.347 and an ERA+ of 101.)

  • Mark Teixeira may still yet be a Bostonian, write Peter Gammons and Buster Olney over at ESPN.com.

Red Sox executives flew to Texas on Thursday believing they were close enough in negotiations to complete a deal with Mark Teixeira. But after they arrived, they were informed that their offer to Teixeira — something in the range of $165 million to $170 million — was short by upwards of $20 million.

With that, the Red Sox stepped away from the negotiating table.

Executives involved in the Teixeira negotiations, however, noted that Red Sox owner John Henry, based on the statement he issued to The Associated Press late Thursday night, did not unequivocally end talks about the first baseman. And executives from other interested teams fully expect the Red Sox to re-engage Scott Boras, the agent for Teixeira.

“It’s a poker game,” said a high-ranking official for one of the teams involved in the talks. “Unless Teixeira is ready to make a deal now, he’ll be talking to Boston again.”

(more…)

Observations From Cooperstown–Ankiel, The Veterans Committee, and Robert Prosky

Following baseball for nearly 40 years has taught me at least one principle: no deal is ever done until both sides have announced it. The failed Mike Cameron trade reinforces that notion. Just a week ago, some media sources were proclaiming it a done deal. A week later, it has been declared dead, apparently over the Yankees’ unwillingness to pick up all of Kei Igawa’s exorbitant salary. So for now, Igawa and Melky Cabrera remain Yankee property—for good, bad, or indifferent.

I have to admit I was lukewarm on the rumored acquisition of Cameron. Yes, he would have been an immediate upgrade over Cabrera and company, and would have come with the bonus of allowing the Yankees to be rid of Igawa, who seems to have no clue about pitching in the major leagues. Yet, the 36-year-old Cameron would have represented only a short-term solution, probably two years at the maximum. He also would have affected the offense’s continuity, with his rather alarming windmill propensity at the plate. Cameron piles up strikeouts the way that Bobby Bonds once did, but without the levels of power and patience that Bonds once displayed during an all-star career.

With Cameron apparently off the board, I’d like to see Brian Cashman resurrect talks for one of three younger center fielders available in trades: the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, the Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel, and Kansas City’s David DeJesus. Of the three, Ankiel might be the most realistic. He’s available, mostly because he’s a Scott Boras client who is one year removed from free agency. The Cardinals don’t think they can sign him by next fall, at which time Boras will likely send Ankiel spiraling full throttle into free agency.

Cashman talked to the Cardinals about the 29-year-old Ankiel during the recent winter meetings (which once again proved to be a disappointing flop and an unmitigated bore, but that’s another story). The Cards expressed interest in Ian Kennedy, whom they really like as a rotation option for 2009. If the Yankees could package Kennedy with Cabrera and perhaps a fringe minor league prospect (someone like Chase Wright or Steven Jackson), maybe a deal could get done.

If the Yankees could sign Ankiel past 2009, he would provide several long-term benefits. He has real power (he hit 25 home runs in 2008, a remarkable achievement considering that he has been an everyday player for only four seasons). He also has a Clementian throwing arm that could play well in either center field or right. The Yankees could use Ankiel in center while Austin Jackson develops at Triple-A and then shift him over to right once “Ajax” is ready for prime time delivery.

Because of his late start as an outfielder, Ankiel might not hit his prime until he’s in his early thirties. By then, he may have improved his patience at the plate and his fundamentals in the outfield. Even if he doesn’t, he looks a lot better than what the Yankees currently have in center field…

(more…)

Yankee Panky: Same Old, Same Old

CORRECTION: Before I get into this week’s topic, I’d like to correct the item from my last post. I mentioned Scott Boras as C.C. Sabathia’s agent, when it’s Greg Genske. Thanks to the readers who brought that to my attention. I should have caught that.

* * * * * *

The Yankees have officially committed $243.5 million over the next seven years to C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Much has been written and said over the last 10 days, and in truth, I expected the coverage to be more rancorous, particularly given the economic climate. (Kudos to Diane Firstman for being on top of every link and bringing it here.)

Once the Burnett signing became official, I couldn’t help but think of the article in The Onion from a few years ago with the headline “Yankees Buy Every Major League Player: Ensure World Series Title,” and photos of Pedro Martinez, Mike Piazza and just about every other All-Star in the game. The signings, on one hand, were necessary. The Yankees had to do something, but was this the correct route? The consensus seems to be yay on Sabathia and a vociferous nay on Burnett. That nay could turn into battery-throwing fits if the Red Sox sign Mark Teixeira before Christmas, which they seem poised to do, according to reports by Peter Gammons and Buster Olney.

I make a concerted effort to take off my fan hat when I read, watch and assess the coverage and conjecture at this time of year, as well as during the season. This time more than ever, I looked for reasons to have the Yankees be likeable. My takeaway: the signings of Sabathia and Burnett fill a hole, to be sure, even if the money thrown at the duo is ghastly. But the money, considering how many people are hurting – people in the Yankees’ fan base, season ticket holders who they’ve priced out – creates a PR mess that incites anger and resentment.

The television broadcasts don’t help. The back-and-forth on Yankees Hot Stove on YES Thursday night, coupled with the dual press conference itself, brought me back to every major press conference I covered or assisted in covering between 2002 and 2008. My eyes are still rolling. The only material differences are the players, obviously, and Yankees PR man Jason Zillo emceeing the event (although Zillo’s vocal inflection is eerily similar to that of his predecessor, Rick Cerrone). Every major Yankees official except for COO Lonn Trost speaks. Randy Levine does everything but put his thumbs in his ears, stick his tongue out and give a playground jibe to the effect of, “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah! We got them and you didn’t!” If you did a shot every time the word “win” or “winning” was mentioned, you’d be wasted in 10 minutes.

(more…)

News of the Day – 12/19/08

Powered by the numerology of Sabathia getting uniform #52 (is he the “Ace” in the Yankees “deck”, or is it really just a “house of cards”?) and Burnett getting #34 (as in, “that’s how many starts you made last year A.J., and that’s how many we need from you for each of the next five seasons”), I bring you the news:

  • ESPN.com‘s Buster Olney reports on the Sabathia portion of the news conference, and gives some background on the wooing of the pitcher over the past few weeks:

Sabathia was phoned twice during his negotiations by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter — recruiting calls — and Jeter told him about how much fun it was playing in New York. The day after he reached his agreement with the Yankees, he called Jeter, and the friends talked again about what it would be like to play together.

Two days before Sabathia made his decision, Reggie Jackson had been in Las Vegas at the winter meetings as part of the Yankees delegation that met with the left-hander. Sabathia, who grew up in the Bay Area, found himself distracted by the presence of the Hall of Famer: “I was just thinking, ‘Would it be weird to ask [Jackson] for an autograph?’” It wasn’t until subsequent meetings that Sabathia got to dig in and, without Jackson around, ask questions about the Yankees and New York.

  • The News has a basic rundown of the news conference.  The one interesting note in it deals not with the players, but with the new stadium:

The new ballpark may generate an extra $200 million in revenue annually, according to Vince Gennaro, author of the book, “Diamond Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball.”

  • Tyler Kepner of the Times reports on the press conference, with a quote from A.J. Burnett and a quite interesting name thrown into the discussion:

“I’m not going to say money wasn’t an issue,” Burnett said. “I’m not going to lie; of course money had something to do with it. But I have a chance to win five years in a row. Whether you admit you love them or hate them, everybody wants to be a Yankee.”

Burnett also got a positive report on New York from an unlikely source: Carl Pavano, his former teammate with the Florida Marlins. During a conversation in September on the field in the Bronx, Pavano raved about the Yankees.

“He recommended I come here,” Burnett said. “He believed that I had to come here to really blossom and really start something special, that I really would belong here.”

(more…)

CC, AJ to make their initial impressions

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The Bombers introduce their Winter Meetings booty this afternoon at a 1 p.m. news conference.  We welcome your comments on the proceedings during and afterwards.

News of the Day – 12/18/08

Powered by the thought that in seven days, we won’t have to be subjected to any more “we know the economy sucks but you should still buy our products” Christmas commercials, here’s the news:

  • Ding-dong the deal is dead:  MLB.com is reporting Doug Melvin as stating that the Cabrera/Cameron deal is “dead”:

What a change from a week ago at the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, where Melvin and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman were close to swapping center fielders. The Yankees would have received Gold Glover and run-producer Mike Cameron, and the Brewers would have received a left-handed bat in Melky Cabrera, probably left-hander Kei Igawa and a bit of cost savings to pursue free agent pitching.

But Melvin and Cashman have not spoken since the morning of Dec. 11. That signaled a dead deal to Melvin.

(My take: If Cabrera can make any sort of progress–both emotionally and with the bat–in the Winter League, and he appears to be doing well down there … see link later on in this post, then perhaps the Yanks can afford to hold onto him till at least the middle of ’09, then deal him if need be.  Otherwise, what CF candidate is out there?  I’m a big Rocco Baldelli fan, and now that his “condition” has been discovered to be less serious, perhaps he’d be worth a flyer.  And no … I don’t want Jim Edmonds.)

  • At the Times, William Rhoden waxes poetic over what Sabathia brings to the Yankees, beyond his athletic prowess:

Sabathia represents a potential breath of fresh air in a stale, cliché-ridden Yankees clubhouse, one with little personality and even less passion, and no recent championship runs to compensate for those deficiencies.

Sabathia is a good-natured star who has strong feelings about issues and isn’t afraid to share them. This is an anomaly in a clubhouse famous for antiseptic professionalism.

In 2007, for example, Sabathia complained about the lack of African-American players in the majors. He even pointed a finger at Major League Baseball for not doing all that it could to increase the numbers.

Sabathia, who was traded from Cleveland to Milwaukee last season, bemoaned the lack of black Americans in baseball. “There aren’t very many African-American players, and it’s not just in here, it’s everywhere,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s not just a problem — it’s a crisis.”

  • The News‘ John Harper wants the Yanks to sign Manny, even with the warning signs:

I have to start by saying I thought Bud Selig should have suspended Manny Ramirez for the way he so blatantly quit on the Red Sox last summer to force his way out of Boston. Earning instant hero status in Los Angeles doesn’t wash away the stain of what amounted to the height of unprofessionalism.

Indeed, Ramirez has proven that he can never be fully trusted as a teammate because he might just lay down on the job again.

Yet I still think it makes sense for the Yankees to take a chance on Manny. If they’re not going to get the guy they really need, a young, team-first slugger such as Mark Teixeira, then they should sign the best clutch hitter in the game and hope for the best.

… in the pursuit of a championship and nothing less, Ramirez is a gamble the Yankees can afford to take. The money is practically irrelevant to them, but if they can get him for a three-year contract, you have to figure they will get a solid effort from the mercurial masher for at least a couple of years.

(My take: That tactic sounds even riskier than giving Burnett a five-year deal.  You’re gonna throw $50-$75 million at someone and  “hope for the best”?)

(more…)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

hunter

Joe Posnanski has an entertaining re-cap of the winter meetings in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated:

The king of this year’s baseball winter meetings in Las Vegas is an 81-year-old scout for the Kansas City Royals named Art Stewart. He is barely 5’7″, and he never played at a level higher than semipro in Chicago, but he’s the Sinatra of the baseball bat pack, the chairman of the hoard, the guy behind the guy behind the guy. He has been coming to the winter meetings for 45 years, going back to his scouting days with the New York Yankees, back when he signed the outfielder Norm Siebern by throwing in a working stove for Norm’s mother. Art knows everybody, and everybody knows Art, and he will admit that the game has changed, the money has changed, even the baseball people have changed. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, one rule that never changes, and it is this: The secret to the winter meetings is to stand on your own piece of carpet.

“Don’t stand on the bare floor,” he says. “You have to protect your feet.”

You laugh? Don’t laugh. See, it’s midnight at the Bellagio, and what’s happening? All those people who did not find their place on the carpet, all of those eager baseball men who have spent the last five or six hours downing drinks and recalling ballplayers who haven’t played in 20 years and proposing deals and standing on the marble floors, well, now their feet hurt. Look at them shifting back and forth. “They’re dropping like flies,” is how Art puts it, and he adds that over his many years, he’s seen countless good guys make bad baseball trades simply because their feet hurt.

“There are tricks to the trade,” Art says. “You bet. Tricks to the trade.”

I Want it, I Want it, I Want it

Man, it must feel good to feel needed, huh? Take Mark Teixeira. I think he’s an excellent player and he’s going to get a ridiculous contract before all is said and done this off-season. I don’t know if he is a great player, but he certainly is good.  And boy, is he ever wanted.

Over at SI.com, Lee Jenkins writes about why the Angels need to sign Teixeira while at Fox, Ken Rosenthal writes that if the Yankees really want to stick it to Boston, they’ll sign Teixeria, dollars and years be damned.

One thing for sure, if the Red Sox do sign him, I think the Yankees will bring Manny Ramirez, baggage, bat and all to the BX.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver